During the early days of the pandemic, Dr. Trisha Pasricha responded to a male patient hospitalized with a stomach ulcer. After spending half an hour speaking with him about the need for endoscopy and when he could expect the procedure to begin, he said one thing: “Well, before we do anything, I’m going to need to discuss it with the doctor.”
“I just sort of stared at him,” Dr. Pasricha said. “And then, the first thing that goes through my mind is, ‘Well, who did you think I was’?”
Dr. Pasricha was the gastroenterologist and physician who would be performing his upper endoscopy procedure. Her encounter with that patient is just one example of what she calls “a classic experience” for women in healthcare.
“When I tell this story to any female physician in medicine, everyone knows exactly how it’s going to end before I get to the end,” Dr. Pasricha said during an interview with Boston Public Radio.
The wealth of stories like these inspired Dr. Pasricha to write a recent commentary for The Atlantic, detailing how COVID-19 exacerbated sexism against women doctors.
“It’s not so much about some insult of being considered one of those other team members, but just this sort of moment of, ‘Why do I not look like a doctor to you?’” Dr. Pasricha said.
“We’re dealing with all of these really real problems that the pandemic exacerbated, and on top of it, we finally show up to work and we’re getting judged on our appearance — and specifically, often our clothing,” Dr. Pasricha added.
A recent study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association looked at how people responded to models posing as physicians. The models who wore white coats “were perceived as significantly more experienced, professional, and friendly compared with those wearing fleece or softshell jackets." In addition, the women models in the study were “rated as appearing less professional” than their male counterparts, and were "more likely to be mistaken as a medical technician, physician, or nurse.”
Dr. Pasricha claims that the pandemic-era scrubs and PPE required for many hospital workers fueled these sexist perceptions of women doctors.
“Most patients consider it sort of inappropriate for a woman physician to not wear a white coat, which during the pandemic we didn’t want to wear because it could transmit pathogens and carry infection from one room to another,” Dr. Pasricha said. “So we were caught in this double jeopardy of, no matter what we wear, we’re considered less professional than men who can generally get by when they meet patients as being judged by their knowledge and expertise alone, rather than by what they’re wearing.”
While Dr. Pasricha has encountered some pushback from male physicians and gastroenterologists for her article, other women physicians have chimed in to share their own stories of sexism on the job.
“I've been getting emails and messages from people I don't know, but other female physicians saying thank you for giving a voice to this that I have experienced, and often experienced in ways that are even far worse than what I have,” Dr. Pasricha said.
“Just sort of acknowledging that there is probably some implicit bias that you're carrying, and taking whatever 10 steps you can take to address that will help the women physicians in your life,” Dr. Pasricha added.
Dr. Trisha Pasricha is a gastroenterologist at Mass General Hospital, a physician at Harvard Medical School, and a health contributor at the Washington Post.